Encouraging dialogue on systemic racism
A dialogue to help foster an inclusive and informed community at Claremont McKenna College took place at the Athenaeum with a distinguished roster of panelists and moderated by Professor Michael Fortner.
Focused on “Systemic Racism: Its Uses, Limits and Critiques,” the Oct. 26 discussion was co-sponsored by the Dreier Roundtable at CMC, whose mission is to inspire public service, and by the Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience in America.
Joining the conversation were Jared Clemons, an assistant professor of political science at Temple University who has an extensive research background spanning political economy, race and the politics of education; CMC Professor Briana Toole, who teaches philosophy and focuses her research on social identity and knowledge, political resistance and disagreement, and power and ideology; and John Wood, Jr., who is a former nominee for Congress, an opinion columnist for USA Today, and the national ambassador for Braver Angels, a grassroots, cross-partisan organization dedicated to political depolarization.
Fortner is the Pamela B. Gann Associate Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at CMC, director of the Dreier Roundtable, and author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment.
He introduced the discussion by noting that while the concept of systemic or structural racism has been embraced by many as a way of analyzing the effects of racial inequality, there are others who span the political spectrum, and have critiqued the approach as “fundamentally flawed if it’s divorced from an understanding of the political economy of this country.”
“Today, what I want to do is to have a conversation about systemic racism, and … whether there are new ways to thinking about racial inequality and disadvantage in the United States today,” he said.
Toole began by offering a definition of systemic racism, a term, she said that is “meant to capture this idea that however the system is rendered, it ends up producing negative outcomes for a particular group of people. And it looks like it’s because that particular group of people has either been left out or targeted by design. So, when we’re thinking about what counts as a crime, why is it that white-collar crime —the sort of things that Wall Street elites might do— why is that considered less criminal and why do they receive less harsh sentences than people from the working class and the poor who tend to be people of color? Well, because we tend to overemphasize crimes and communities of color and underemphasize crime that fits with our capitalist intentions.”
Clemons explained why he tends not to use the terms systemic racism, or structural racism, as they are more descriptive than analytical. “And what I mean by that is, people tend to use systemic racism to describe disparities…if we say, ‘the racial wealth gap is because of structural racism, then my follow-up question would be, ‘What do you do about that?’”
He continued: “Systemic racism doesn’t necessarily do a good job of helping us to make sense of things. Instead of trying to understand why it is that there are inequalities between so-called racial groups, we need to historicize whatever policy, issue, or question that we're interested in, and understand all of the parts of that whole. And then from there, try to think about how we might fashion some type of policy or procedure that could potentially address some of those inequalities.”
Wood described himself as a “social justice conservative” who emphasizes tradition, virtue, and community.
“But I also believe that structures and systems matter, that they inevitably proceed from the biases of the groups that set them in motion. And so, we have to be very conscientious of that when we engage in conversations of analysis and reform. But if all you’re doing is engaging in conversations over systemic analysis, you do find it easier to ignore — and just completely miss the variables of — personal agency, the variables of cultural and social norms, the variables of traditions, and of the natural inclination of human nature.
“There’s so much juice in this particular subject that we tend to want to pack everything that is socially relevant into it,” Wood continued. “And in so doing, when we get too technocratic about it, we lose everything that the humanities and that religion, philosophy, and spirituality and other ways of knowing and engaging, have to offer us in terms of how it is we look at institutions, and the human beings who operate them in the first place. And so, I don’t negate the concept, but I do think it’s important for us to understand the limitations that express themselves around its contours when you zoom out a little bit and see not just what it’s saying, but the things that it fails to capture, and maybe obscures as well.”
At one point, Fortner asked the panel if there is a “way out of racial thinking.” Later, a CMC sophomore majoring in Psychology, followed up on the question. He wondered what effects the mixing of races could have on racial thinking, and as a possible solution to systemic racism.
Toole answered that encouraging racial dialogue could offer a way out. “If we’re thinking about solutions, we have to take the fear out of talking about race, whatever we mean by it, because the only way to fix stuff is to talk about it. And I think talking about it is important… because what it can help people realize that they only really care about race when they need to feel superior to someone else. That’s its most vital function. I think it allows people to preserve a sense of superiority in the face of economic, cultural, religion, and religious difficulties that make them feel like nothing unless there's someone that they can put down. And so, I think when we can start having those kinds of honest conversations, then we can get to a point where [we can say] race isn’t a logical concept.
“You’re more than just the color of your skin and your value as a human being does not depend on that feature,” Toole continued. “But the fact that so many people think it does, says a lot about the American psyche right now.”